Category Archives: gardens

I found a crayfish in a really weird place

Over the years that I’ve spent in gardens, I’ve come across all sorts of curious things – chocolate eggs, lost toys, hundreds of clay pipe stems, old bottles, fossils and oyster shells – but on a day in 2010 I made the oddest find to date. I was happily pruning a rambling rose that was trained against a lovely old Cotswold stone wall, when a flash of blue appeared amongst the foliage. The first thing that came to mind was a faded Hydrangea flower head, but there weren’t any Hydrangeas. Looking closer, I was astonished to find, hanging in the branches about 2m from the ground, a long-dead crayfish.

I admit that I’m not especially familiar with crayfish, wildlife on dry land has always been more my area of interest. I’ve watched them scurrying about the bottom of a shallow stream in the Lake District and I’ve been served them once, though I would rather not repeat that experience. A more fiddly and unrewarding meal I have seldom eaten. Crayfish haven’t been part of my life, so to come across one dangling in a rambling rose was a considerable surprise.

crayfish-1

Back indoors, I set out upon the agreeable pursuit of looking things up and discovered that there is only one native crayfish in the UK, the freshwater white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), which is increasingly threatened by an invasive American type, the signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus. The signal crayfish eats everything in its path and damages river banks by digging deep burrows which cause the river banks to collapse. Crayfish need lively-flowing streams and rivers to live in and it happens that there is a lively-flowing river running through this town, the river Windrush. I then discovered that signal crayfish have been found in the Windrush and realised that many of the  holes I’d seen in the banks are likely to have been dug by them. Comparing the shape, colour and markings of the claw of the crayfish I found to the one shown here, I concluded that it is a signal crayfish.

crayfish-2

So how on earth did this crayfish get itself from the river, some 500m away at the closest, and into a rambling rose in a town garden? The only answer I could come up with is that it was caught in the river by a heron and then dropped as the bird flew over the garden. Did the heron simply lose its grip on the bony shell or was the crayfish putting up its last fight and struggling to break free from the heron’s beak, snapping its claws at the bird’s face? Or maybe another heron was trying to steal the first heron’s catch and the crayfish was dropped as they argued. I’ll never find out how it got into that rose, but it reminds me that the world is vast, that there are countless questions I’ll never even ask, let alone be able to answer. There’s no looking this one up, it will always be a puzzle, but a bit of mystery is a good thing.

crayfish-3

Unexpected visitors

Sunday was meant to be a gentle day – we’d bake some bread, potter outside and cook something delicious. That didn’t happen for, as Robert Burns said in his poem, ‘To a Mouse‘, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. In other words, you can plan all you want to, but don’t expect any of it to happen.

I was enjoying the ‘potter outside’ section of this plan, cutting back spent perennials, and was thus engrossed when I heard buzzing. It grew louder and I looked up to see bees overhead. How wonderful, a swarm of honey bees setting forth to build a new colony. I expected them to fly over in a column, as usual, and disappear beyond the rooftops, but they didn’t. Instead I found myself at the centre of a swirling mass of swarming bees. At first it was alarming, then I recalled all those times working in flower filled beds, with bees almost buzzing in my hair, and realised that they probably hadn’t even noticed me and were interested in their own business of finding a safe place for their queen. Still, probably better to close a couple of windows, just in case, and find the number of a local swarm collector on the British Beekeepers Association site.

bee-swarmThe swarm clustered in the Magnolia tree

I spoke to a swarm collector, Steph Green, from a nearby village, who said she’d be there within the hour. Outside the bees were still active but gradually settling high up in the big old Magnolia tree outside the kitchen window, the worker bees – Steph calls them ‘the girls’ – clustering protectively around the queen. Every so often, I’d go and check that they were still there and hadn’t moved on. Here they are in the clip below.

In due course, Steph arrived with her bee collecting gear – two bee keeper’s suits, boots, gloves, a sheet for any falling bees to land on so they would be seen and not squashed, and a special polystyrene box called a ‘nuc box’, or nucleus collecting box, which was set out under the tree.

IMG_20160703_171805Karl in the tree

The work of bringing the swarm down to the ground began. Our longest ladders weren’t quite long enough for Steph to reach the swarm and the upper branches were congested so would need trimming. Karl was the tallest and had the longest arms so he volunteered to go up. He cut out some wood, a job which needed doing anyway, got into the tree, removed the branch with the swarm and very carefully lowered it down. Steph took it from him, held it over the box, gave a sharp downward shake and most of the bees dropped straight in. The others continued to swirl around us, their buzzing surprisingly loud.

bee-branchGetting ready to shake the bees into the box

in-the-boxLooking for the queen

Steph had told me on the phone that the bees would have filled their stomachs prior to swarming and would be fairly docile. She said their stomachs would be so full they’d find it hard to get into position to sting and anyway they were intent on the queen, not stinging. It made sense. I had long sleeves, was wearing gloves and my trousers were tucked into boots, so I kept what seemed a sensible distance, tidied up the cut branches, took pictures and listened to Steph talking about what the bees were doing.

suits-bootsKarl and Steph

Some remained in the tree top, where they could still smell the queen, whilst others were standing in rows on the edge of the box with their rear ends pointing skyward and their wings flapping. They were giving off the Nasonov pheromone, which smells of geraniums and is used to signal stragglers to the colony’s whereabouts. Beware of eating bananas before dealing with bees, as the alarm pheromone reputably smells much like them.

hive-530pm

The bees fan their pheromone scent to encourage the stragglers to join them

Gradually, the bees were coaxed into the box, the lid put on and a hole left open for latecomers to get in. Steph was extremely gentle in her work, taking care that none of the bees were inadvertently harmed. Inside their box, the bees ‘fanned’ to alert the rest of the colony, sounding very much like an electric fan, while a small group of female workers stood by the round doorway, bottoms pointing up, giving off their geranium scent.

brush-lidSteph gently moves bees out of harm’s way

By 7pm, most had gone inside and only three workers remained at the doorway, so we went in and had dinner. As dusk fell, the bees went to bed and Steph took them to their new home amongst other bees, in a field.

hive-7pmBy 7pm, only three bees were still signalling

What a day. Karl said later how surreal it felt to find himself not doing the odd jobs he’d intended to, but in a tree and holding a branch with a swarm of bees clustering on it. Not the plan, but a very good day indeed.

IMG_20160509_075712Their new home

A walk on the wild side

A friend is selling up her acre plot and moving into town and, for this last year, she’s decided to give herself a break and let part of the garden go wild. It’s a good idea, in my opinion – she is well into creaking joints territory and has over 30 year’s worth of belongings to sort out, and caring for an acre is no small undertaking at the best of times. It will also be good to see what wildlife is attracted. The area of garden allowed to go wild has had some four months of vigorous growth, fueled by warm days and plentiful rain, so I am curious to see what’s going on there.

nettles-grassSome of the nettles

The first thing I notice is an abundance of nettles (Urtica dioica) – there are thickets of them almost as tall as I am, some festooned with cleavers (Gallium aparine). According to the aesthetics of appearance that most are familiar with, this sight is no thing of beauty, but the nettles are humming with life. Where growing most thickly, the leaves and stems are smothered with aphids and it’s interesting to note that a large number of the aphids appear to have been parasitised by wasps. I’ve never seen so many parasitised aphids before and wonder if they have been parasitised by one of the tiny wasps of the sub order Aphidiinae. There are none to see, so my guess remains just that. A healthy population of parasitic wasps means the rest of the garden may stand a chance against other insect pests.

fliesFlies and a parasitised aphid

Amongst the aphids countless small flies buzz around or walk to and fro over the nettle leaves and I wonder if they are after the sugary excrement of the aphids, who have been busy siphoning off the sap of the nettles. From a distance, I feel a natural revulsion to so many flies – to a part of my brain they imply putrefaction – but there is no foul smell of decay and, close up, the flies reveal bodies of iridescent green and gold and are really quite beautiful.

I walk around the stands of nettles, careful to avoid touching their stinging hairs. Some nettles have a harsher sting than others and I’ve found that those growing elsewhere in this garden pack quite a punch. Leaning in, a flash of blue catches my eye. It is a male common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a leaf and my attentions disturb it, so it flies to another part of the thicket.

damselfly

I wander, bending and straightening, peering along stems and under leaves. Here is a ladybird larva busily foraging for aphids and over there is the fat caterpillar of a red admiral butterfly moving slowly amongst the leaves. Soon it will pupate, attach itself to a leaf and ready itself to become a butterfly.

red-admiral-caterpillarA red admiral butterfly caterpillar

Over there, several clusters of Peacock butterfly caterpillars. Another good reason to leave this patch alone. Nearby a harvestman spider, not a true spider but an arachnoid, stands very still on a leaf and I wonder if it is waiting for prey or just resting.

peacock-caterpillarsPeacock butterfly caterpillars

Tall grasses waft around the edges of the wild area and comfrey finds a space for itself where it can and light up the greenness with purple flowers. Bumblebees travel slowly from one pendulous flower to another. If I were to stay here for many hours, and perhaps over night, I’m sure there would be birds, amphibians and small mammals coming to take advantage of the shelter and sustenance of this wild area. There is plenty here for all.

bumblebee-comfreyBumblebee on comfrey 

There’s a lot of tree bark stripping this year

The winter of 2015-2016 was mild compared to some of those from earlier in the decade and you’d think that the wild mammals would have found enough to eat in the fields and hedgerows, but this spring I’ve seen some of the worst damage to tree bark I’ve ever come across. In rural gardens I expect to find the juicy foliage of bulbs and shrubs nibbled at the end of winter, but this year has seen an increase in tree bark stripping that I haven’t previously observed.

deer-bulb-foliageChewed bluebell foliage

At Ruth’s out-of-town garden, about half of her orchard trees have been ring-barked, the bark gnawed off all around the trunks, some up to 40cm. What a mournful sight it was to see her fine apple trees so ravaged, protected too late with chicken wire that will at least prevent further damage. I thought of others I know who have fruit trees and felt a strong urge to check on them. The tale continued – oaks planted to celebrate the Millennium, which had been thought mature enough to no longer need protection, had been stripped. Some creature had made a good meal from a gnarled and leaning old apple tree, with the branches growing along the ground now free of bark. In nearby woodland, the evidence was again clear and tree trunks had been nibbled and gnawed as far as could be reached.

apple-tree-damage-3Doesn’t look so good, does it

Which species ate the bark? Looking into the issue, my guess is that it was a variety of them. A surprising number of UK mammals eat bark and I suspect that the culprits in the gardens were mainly voles and rabbits. Both gardens regularly see the garden plants browsed and bulbs dug out and eaten and both have resident rabbits and voles, as evidenced by droppings and the large number of tunnel entrances – I imagine one particularly holey and uneven area of grass must have a vole citadel beneath it.

deerBambi, was it you?

It is alarming to come across such damage to beloved trees but once it has happened, there isn’t much to be done and one can only think of ways to prevent further depredations. The first thing I did was protect the tree trunks with an ever-useful material, the galvanised wire mesh we know as chicken wire. Over the years, I have found countless uses for the combination of chicken wire and bamboo canes. Here they came in handy once again as the wire mesh was fashioned into cages around the trees and fixed in position with the canes. Not all the trees will survive, of course, and those completely ring-barked will no doubt die, but others may yet live.

Why has this happened now, I ask myself? I can only think that the mild winter has resulted in an increased survival rate of the wildlife concerned, all of them needing to eat and finding the clusters of trees and succulent young foliage of nearby plants to be most advantageous to them. Speaking to another gardener, I hear that a local herd of deer has increased from around six to 20 in the last couple of years and they are regularly found dining in the village gardens.

rabbit-damageThis Campanula clearly tastes good

I am somewhat torn in my feelings about the matter. I feel very sorry for the garden owners having their gardens damaged and will do all that I can to protect them but another part of me, the part with a fervent interest in ecology and who is a keen fan of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, can’t help but be glad that the rabbits, voles and deer are there in the first place and obviously finding something to eat. In my secret heart, I cheer these wild creatures who are finding a way to live within the ever-increasing sprawl of humanity, for we are encroaching on their territory quite as much as they encroach on what we believe to be ours.

Recognising types of mammal damage

‘A beautiful young sapling leapt up’

In 2012 the magnificent old cherry tree in the garden, consumed by rot, blossomed for the last time, started dropping branches and died in the autumn. It was the biggest and most gnarled cherry tree I’ve ever seen, splendid and beautiful.

old cherry tree

It was so sad to see it go, like losing a friend, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in missing it – small birds sheltered in the canopy, woodpeckers nested in a hole pecked out of the spongy wood and beetles and wasps bored holes in which to lay eggs. For me, I missed the ancient knobbly trunk, sunlight shining through the dark red foliage and seeing the falling petals drift down like confetti.

fallen_branch

As luck would have it, in 2011 I had found two almost identical seedlings nearby and potted them up. I never found any others and attempts to propagate from seed were not successful, so these two little descendants were all that was left.

felled_cherry_treeGoodbye cherry tree

Winter passed and by the summer of 2013 the remains of the old stump were rotting away. The seedlings had come on nicely and were both some 30cm tall. What if we dug out the rotting wood and planted one of them in the hole? I didn’t see why not, so on the 2nd of July, 2013 we set to and dug it out. The hole was filled with new soil and the tree was planted, watered in and given some support.

tree_planted

Then we watched to see what would happen and the new cherry surpassed our expectations, easily doubling in height during the first year.

new cherry 2013 0702It was so small!

We carried out careful pruning and diligent watering and the tree continued to thrive and grow. By the end of 2015 it was a good deal taller than either of us. In 2016, it flowered for the first time. Not many flowers, perhaps a dozen, but they shone in the sun and I was glad to see them. Now that it’s leafing out, the morning light once again shines through the red leaves and we often admire it through the kitchen window.

cherry flowerFirst flowers

The other sapling I planted out in a farm garden and it has fared very differently. It looks healthy enough, but it’s still under 1m tall rather than the 2m plus of its sibling. Why is there this striking difference in growth? I’ve thought about it a lot and have come up with a few ideas. It may simply be that this was the sturdier specimen, though both seemed very much the same. Perhaps it has better soil or is more protected than the other tree.

cherry tree 2016 0313Spring 2016

The explanation that pleases me the most, whether it’s the best one or not, is that between the time of the old tree coming down and the new one going in – some nine months – the old roots started to soften and break down. The roots of the new tree have found the underground ways of those roots and are following them, making use of the established network and the beneficial work of mycorrhizal fungi which is undoubtedly present below the unfed lawn where the old roots run. Whatever the truth of the matter, the tree is clearly thriving. I am reminded of a line from Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King‘ about the Mallorn tree which Sam Gamgee plants when he returns to The Shire: ‘A beautiful young sapling leapt up‘. As I look at the beautiful young sapling here, that line goes through my mind often and I wonder how it will look in the years to come and whether it will ever be as resplendent as its ancestor became, giving shelter and sustenance to so many small creatures. I shall never know, but I hope that it does.

cherry-2016-2Coming into leaf

 

Margaret, an appreciation

I went to Margaret’s garden for the last time this morning. She died in July and the house has now sold, so I went for a final look round and to collect a few plants that we both liked.

summer-2011The back garden in the summer of 2011

As I looked at it all for the last time I felt a real pang of sadness, thinking of all the time we’d spent together, pretty much every Thursday afternoon for nigh on six years. I got to know her tastes well and could tell within moments of arriving at the house what she’d want doing that day. Sometimes she’d be a little late coming outside and she’d say, ‘Good, that’s exactly what I was going to ask you to do. I loved that and I loved it when she’d say, ‘I’m just going to finish this, you go in and put the kettle on’ and I knew where everything was kept so would have tea and biscuits all set out when she came in. I loved the way she liked to mother me with kindly gestures, the Christmas gift of tools I’d admired or some sweet thing she thought I’d enjoy. Then there was occasional motherly advice about how many meals my pay would put on the table or that I should ‘go and look after that man of yours’ – speaking of Karl, who she’d have been concerned about because he was up a ladder out the front.

summer-2011-42011 – Margaret loved her roses

The gardening was so good when she was well. I’d often arrive to find she’d planned the afternoon’s jobs for us and we’d work busily together until we’d done as much as we could. Afterwards, we’d generally sit drinking tea and talking for up to an hour; during those periods she’d tell me many stories from her life and travels. She once related the very long story of meeting her husband Richard for the first time and I laughed at how he’d told her he could never marry a woman under 5’6″  ‘From then on’ she said, ‘all my papers said I was 5’6″ and that was that’.

summer-2012The shady woodland-edge garden we made at the front of the house in 2012

She had her moments of crabbiness too, especially after she became ill, and could be snappy. She once asked me to remove and burn an old tree stump which had been supporting a rose. I looked at it and said no, because the rot and crumbliness showed it was used by many creatures, especially the ground beetles that were so useful in her garden. I told her I’d move it, but not burn it. There was a pause and she barked ‘Oh well, you just continue your love affair with beetles!’ and the stump remained. Another time, a couple of weeks before she died, she wanted to go and look at some plants she’d put in while she was still able to do so. Friends with her were trying to persuade her not to tire herself, but typical Margaret was refusing to listen to them and insisted on going. Karl offered to wheel her down the path on a sack trolley, at which she snorted with laughter and shouted ‘Idiot!’, which was just what he’d been hoping for, a spark of the Margaret we knew.

summer-2011-3

Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to be her daughter, if she had been the mother I had never had. Demanding, I should think, but I wondered all the same.

It is sad to carry on tending someone’s garden after they’ve died. You see the darkened windows of the house and half expect to see them looking out at you. As you look around the garden, there are so many memories of times gone by. It was with sadness that I stood outside the house for the last time, finally leaving. Then, curiously, I heard her voice inside me insist, ‘But I’m coming with you!’ and it occurred to me then that in the plants that she loved, which I was bringing away and shall now care for, yes, Margaret’s coming with me.

margaret
Margaret Bettesworth – August 29, 1932 – July 23, 2015

milk-bottles

Frogs and newts are both using the pond this spring, so what will happen to the frog spawn?

After a cold end to March, it feels like spring is finally here – the weather has warmed, plants are growing again, birds are singing and amphibians like frogs, toads and newts are making their way to ponds for mating and egg laying.

frog_in-grass

On April 1, in the tiny pond at home, there was an overnight appearance of frog spawn, a big clump of it right in the middle of the pond. I didn’t see any frogs (Rana temporaria ), in the pond but movement under the water made the spawn wobble so something was down there. Maybe it was the frog who laid the spawn staying to protect the eggs for a while.

Continue reading Frogs and newts are both using the pond this spring, so what will happen to the frog spawn?